Tilaï, 1990

Tilaï opens to a long sequence, off-axis shot of a lone traveler moving away from view as he slowly traverses the arid, featureless plain on a lumbering, overburdened mule and disappears into the desolate horizon. It is an appropriately distanced and alienated introduction for the weary, but sanguine Saga (Rasmane Ouedraogo) who, after an extended journey away from his native village, has returned to the foreboding sight of anxious villagers assembled at a clearing near the entrance of the intimate community. Greeted by his brother Kougri (Assane Ouedraogo) who heads off Saga at the footpath to the village on behalf of the family, Kougri informs him of an unforeseen (and reprehensible) development during his absence: the marriage of his beloved Nogma (Ina Cissé) to their father Nomenaba (Seydou Ouedraogo), having changed his mind and taken the reluctant young woman – once promised to Saga by the old man himself – as his second wife. Unwilling to accept Nomenaba’s feckless and inconsiderate act, Saga defies his father’s demands to return home and instead, decides to build a hut away from the village on a self-imposed exile from the inconsiderate elder. Deliberately insulated from the tribal repercussions of Saga’s disobedience over the complicated affair, Nogma’s curious and well-intentioned younger sister Kuilga (Roukietou Barry) stumbles upon Saga’s new habitation and subsequently brings the unhappily married Nogma to the location, unwittingly sowing the seeds of temptation for the unrequited couple.

Idrissa Ouedraogo creates a distilled, lucid, and incisive cautionary tale of obdurate pride, self-righteous rationalization, and archaic traditions in Tilaï. By setting the film in pre-colonial Africa, Ouedraogo eschews the implication of external, social and ethno-political factors in order to present a culturally indigenous, yet universal examination of the bifurcation of tribal law (or more broadly, social custom) and moral judgment in the governance of everyday life (note a similar atemporality in the depiction of coercively imposed, ancient customs in Keisuke Kinoshita’s Narayama Bushiko and Shohei Imamura’s subsequent re-adaptation, The Ballad of Narayama). Ouedraogo’s economic, but exquisitely realized compositions capture the pervasive austerity of landscape through predominantly medium and long shots that illustrate a paradoxical coexistence between an openness of environment and an intrusiveness of social setting inherent in village life: low property walls that preserve (if not foster) communality; expansive and desolate topography that aggregates population into localized, autonomous tribes for mutual cooperation; scarcity of population that engenders dubious (if not self-serving) laws by tribal elders to ensure survival and continuity of the community (and implicitly, their own ancestral lineage). In the end, it is this corruptive and implicitly incestuous relationship between entrusted authority and personal vanity that is reflected in Saga and Nogma’s seemingly star-crossed destiny: the breakdown of humanity in the absence of humility, compromise, forgiveness, and acceptance of human frailty.

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